Greek New Testament Manuscripts and Editions
Original Manuscripts Lost
The Bible itself as a book has a complicated history. The very original manuscripts are lost, because it would have been written on either papyrus or parchment made of animal hide. These materials do not last long, and so the manuscripts need to be copied by hand on new materials to be passed down through the generations.
As of now, we have no discovery of the very original manuscripts. The oldest fragments we have may be dated to the 2nd Century, but it is hard to establish whether they’re the original or copies.
Copies Made by Amateurs
The early church was mostly consisted of low-class, less educated people. Even the prestigious church father and genius Origen of Alexandria admitted that the Christians were lower class people, but he emphasized that although they were foolish in the eyes of man, they were wise in the eyes of God.
This becomes an issue – most of the Christians were illiterate. How could illiterate people be able to make copies of the texts and pass them down? As a result, some who were literate, or barely literate, were given the task of copying the Scriptures.
What we deem “literate” today may not be on the same standards as 2,000 years ago. Approximately 90% of the population in the Roman Empire were illiterate, and those who were literate would probably be illiterate by our standards. A person who could sign his name but could not write any more than that was deemed a literate person.
Some Christians copied the text by “drawing” out the shape of each letter. Some were highly literate but were not trained as professional scribes who copied texts with little error. As a result, the manuscripts often had errors such as spelling and miscopying different lines, etc.
How do we restore them? How do we find out what the very original manuscripts said? This comes down to the science and art of New Testament textual criticism.
The Concept of Textual Criticism
It is not the scope of this article to get into the details of textual criticism. However, it will help to know a little about what textual criticism is.
Textual criticism is the science and art of finding issues in the text and restoring them. For example, we all have typing errors. How do we spot the errors? By common sense, of course, such as:
Original text: “I read 3 chapters of the Bible last night.”
Spelling error: “I red 3 chapters of the Bible last knight.”
We can immediately spot where went wrong. This is an easy sentence to restore.
Original text: “There was only one ship in sight, and Aaron was bored.”
Copy error: “There was only one ship in sight, and Aaron was aboard.”
Although the reading is similar, the meaning is vastly different. Textual criticism is mostly about common sense. The first sentence may indicate viewing things from Aaron’s perspective. He was bored because there was only one ship to see. The second sentence may indicate the perspective of someone besides Aaron, because he could see one ship, and he could see Aaron on that ship. Whether the text is about Aaron’s perspective or the perspective of someone else will determine which sentence is correct. This requires reading the context and judging by it.
The examples go on. Textual criticism is, of course, much more than this. What they do in textual criticism is not hard to find on the Internet. I believe you get the basic idea now. The differences between manuscripts (different errors etc.) form different categories of New Testament manuscripts is discussed below.
References for New Testament Textual Criticism
Since there are many errors by non-professional scribes, the more manuscripts we have, the better, so we have more references to make the best judgment. We have more than 5,600 manuscripts of the New Testament today. Scholars study them extensively and find that they can categorize them into different categories according to their shared textual similarities. Two common ways are used:
1. Categorizing the manuscripts by their writing style
Papyrus: Fragments of the New Testament on papyrus. They represent some of the oldest manuscripts.
Unicals / Majuscules: Manuscripts written entirely in capital letters. These are mostly dated from the 4th Century to the 8th Century (some 10th Century).
Miniscules: Manuscripts from the 9th Century and onwards. These are written in smaller letters and often have abbreviated words for words that repeat often to save writing material.
Lectionary: These mostly date from the 9th Century onwards. They are not copies of the books of the Bible, but are a collection of biblical passages often used in liturgy.
Or, 2. Categorize the manuscripts by the similarity of their context / error / readings, called “text types”:
Alexandrian Text Type: Complete New Testament manuscripts with the highest quality ever found. It is sometimes referred to as the “neutral” text, or the original text. It includes the oldest complete New Testament from the 4th Century (e.g. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus). Attested by the literature of the earliest church fathers before the 4th Century to be the earliest and most likely original New Testament Scripture. It is all written in unicals / majuscules, which means capital letters. Alexandrian text type has the greatest importance in textual criticism.
Byzantine Text Type: Never existed until after the 4th Century. No literature of the early fathers support the existence of such New Testament text before around the time of the Second Council of Nicea / Nicene. It is chosen as the official text after the Second Council of Nicea / Nicene (381 C.E.). Later it developed into the Traditional Text and was fixed as so in the 7th Century, and gave birth to the Majority Text that matured in the 9th Century. The Received Text (or Textus Receptus in Latin) was derived from this in the 16th Century.
In short, Byzantine Text Type (4th Century) –> Traditional Text (7th Century) –> the Majority Text (9th Century) –> Received Text (16th Century).
Early Byzantine text more closely resembles the Alexandrian text type. Later people continued to modify the text and it grew further and further away from its early form, maturing as the Traditional Text. It is then copied in vast numbers, forming the Majority Text.
The Majority Text is referred to as the “majority” merely because of the large quantity of available manuscripts, not because it is the most important or the most original. We’ll discuss about the Received Text in another subtitle.
Caesarian Text Type: Only a few manuscript are available with this text type. This text type is considered to be a mixture of Alexandrian text type and the Western text type. Its importance in textual criticism is limited.
Western Text Type: We have very many manuscripts of this text type. The Western text type is mostly written in Latin. It is highly unreliable, usually paraphrases of the original text, and has surprising freedom in altering the text. Western text type has the least value in textual criticism.
The History of the Received Text (Textus Receptus)
The Received Text has had a significant impact in Western theology. The Received Text was the first published Greek New Testament thanks to mass printing technology made available then. However, its origin, content, and quality are absolutely terrible.
It was back in the early 16th Century, when Bishop Ximenes de Cisneros (1437~1517 CE) was working on his parallel Complutensian Polyglot Bible. In order to be the first to publish the Greek New Testament and be ahead of the bishop, scholar Desiderius Erasmus from Netherlands rushed with editing the New Testament and finished it in merely 2 years (compared to the 15 years of Complutensian Polyglot Bible). The first edition was full of editing errors and of very poor quality.
What is worse with Erasmus’ Greek New Testament is that he only had very limited manuscripts available to him. He had 6 manuscripts, the combination of all of them make up almost the entire New Testament for his reference. The oldest text he had was from the 10th Century, but he referred little to it. The rest were all from the 12th Century onwards, all of dubious quality, and were from the Majority Text. The last six verses of Revelation were missing, so Erasmus simply translated the verses from Latin into Greek, and said it was the original Greek text.
The first edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament did not have Comma Johanneum, which reads as follows:
(1 John 5:7) For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. (NKJV)
However, no Greek manuscript had this passage. The Greek manuscripts actually read:
(1 John 5:7) For there are three that testify: (ESV)
The testimony of the Trinity was important evidence that the theism of the Trinity had biblical sources, and Comma Johanneum was the only explicit text that supported the Trinity, especially the ending clause “and these three are one”. Comma Johanneum existed only in Latin Vulgate, a 4th Century Latin translation of the Bible. The fact that Erasmus did not have Comma Johanneum caused rage among theologists of his time. He was accused, and he agreed to add it to his future editions of the Greek New Testament, on the condition that a Greek manuscript was found to have Comma Johanneum.
Two weeks later, a small manuscript with a small portion of the New Testament was presented to Erasmus with Comma Johanneum. This was a made-to-custom Greek manuscript produced in the 16th Century solely to convince Erasmus to add it to his future editions. Erasmus, as promised, added Comma Johanneum to the text. His edition of the Greek New Testament became very popular, and was called the “Received Text”.
Later editions of the Received Text edited by people after Erasmus retained all the disadvantages of the Received Text. King James Version used the Received Text edited by Stephenus and Theodore Beza to translate the New Testament.
The Critical Text
Modern New Testament textual criticism had made major advances thanks to scholars like Westcott and Hort. Textual criticism today is both a scientific practice and an art, employing much objective technique and common sense based on the wealthy knowledge and skills of some of the best scholars today. We call this modern edition of the Greek New Testament produced in the most vigilant, strict, scholarly, and critical manner the “critical text”.
The most widely accepted critical text comes in two versions: Novum Testamentum Graece, and United Bible Societies Greek New Testament.
Novum Testsamentum Graece is also called Nestle-Aland Edition (abbreviated NA), named after the greatest scholars in textual criticism in the 20th Century. Most modern English versions use NA-27 (27th edition). The newest version is NA-28.
United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (abbreviated UBSGNT, or simply UBS) is also called Westcott & Hort Edition (abbreviated WH), named after the greatest scholars in textual criticism in the 19th Century. Currently the 4th edition is used (called UBS-4 or WH-4).
NA-28 and WH-4 are basically the same in their main text. They differ mainly in their commentaries. NA-28 provides a highly dense and richly informative data of textual differences between manuscripts. WH-4 does not list so many textual differences, but mainly focuses on the key differences that may affect the translation or exegesis of the Bible, and discuss the issues deeply in a scholarly manner. In other words, NA-28 is designed for textual critics, and WH-4 is designed for translators. When referred together, Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies edition are called NU-Text. Most mainstream English versions of the Bible today use NU-Text.
Another interesting critical version of the Greek New Testament is the SBL (Society Biblical Literature) text, funded by Logos Bible Software. It is an independent edition, and shows some differences from NU-Text, but still very close. It is freely available on the Internet. Lexham English Bible (reverse interlinear Bible), or LEB, is translated from SBL.
Having gone through the basics of New Testament manuscript, I hope it has been of help to you. When picking a version of the Bible, it is important to consider the textual basis they use to translate it. Bible versions like KJV, NKJV, etc. use the Received Text, and so are inadequate translations. ESV, NASB, etc. use NU-Text, and are therefore adequate. Understanding the basics of the original text of the Bible will help you not only in choosing the right version for your needs, but also in your study of the Bible.
Having known the basics of the different text types of the Greek manuscripts and the true history of the Received Text, we can see how erroneous KJV-only groups are. The critical text is infinitely superior to the Received Text in every possible way.
1999. Wegner, P.D. The Journey from Texts to Translations – The Origin and Development of the Bible. Baker Books House Company.
2005. Ehrman, B.D. MISQUOTING JESUS: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HaperCollins Publishers.
2013. Lewis, K. The Essentials of Textual Criticism. Lecture Notes for Theology (Biola University).Written on April 24, 2015 at 2:58 pm